Skip to main content
Collection highlights /

Sir Walter Raleigh’s release

With this royal warrant, James I authorized his release from the Tower of London based upon the promise that Raleigh would voyage to the New World and return with gold.

James I. Royal warrant for the release of Sir Walter Raleigh. January 30, 1617. Folger call number L.b. 358. Photograph by Horace Groves.

This royal warrant from James I, written on vellum and authenticated with the king’s Great Seal, authorizes the release of Sir Walter Raleigh from the Tower of London on January 30, 1617. Raleigh had been one of Elizabeth I’s many favorites and is best known for financing and directing the first colonization of Virginia, a colony named for the Virgin Queen. 

Shortly after Elizabeth’s death and James I’s accession to the throne, Raleigh was caught up in a plot “to surprise the Kings person” and subsequently convicted, despite the untrustworthiness of the accusation. On the day before he was to be executed, he was given a reprieve and imprisoned in the Tower of London. There he remained a prisoner from 1603 to 1617, during which time he wrote his monumental History of the World. 

With this warrant, James authorized Raleigh’s release based upon the promise that Raleigh, now sixty-five years old, would undertake another voyage to the New World and bring back half a ton of gold ore in exchange for his liberty. 

The voyage was unfortunate from the start. Storms scattered the fleet, sinking and disabling many ships. They were driven by a hurricane, then caught in the doldrums for forty days. Short of water and prey to scurvy and fever, many of Raleigh’s crew members died. Finally landing in Guiana (now Venezuela), they set off in search of a Spanish gold mine. The attempt to win the mine ended in disaster, including the death of Raleigh’s own son. 

As a man of honor, Raleigh returned to England to imprisonment in the Tower. Spanish anger over this last adventure then led to a reinstatement of the order of execution. He was beheaded on October 29, 1618.

See the warrant in our digital image collection